The Geneva Conventions, signed 60 years ago, have remained the backbone of laws that protect wounded combatants, prisoners and civilians during conflict, says the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Even though all the world's 194 states have signed up to the regulations, the universal applicability of international humanitarian law (IHL) in more recent conflicts has come under increasing scrutiny.
"We see violations of IHL on a regular basis in the field, ranging from the mass displacement of civilians to indiscriminate attacks and ill-treatment of prisoners," Jakob Kellenberger, ICRC president, said recently.
"Even wars have limits and if the existing rules were followed to a greater extent, much of the suffering caused by armed conflict could be avoided," he added. "On a more positive note, many of these violations are no longer going unnoticed. Increasingly, those responsible are being held accountable for their actions and that is a sign of progress."
Over the years, the conventions have been reinforced by three additional protocols and by customary IHL rules, but one key challenge remains – as conflicts have become more complex, distinguishing between combatants and civilians becomes more difficult. Then there is terrorism to add to the mix.
In addition, military operations have moved from distinguishable battlefields to become increasingly concentrated in population centres, such as Gaza City, Grozny or Mogadishu.
"The unclear distinction between civilian and military functions and the increasing involvement of civilians in military operations have caused confusion as to who is a legitimate military target and who must be protected against direct attack," said ICRC spokeswoman Claire Kaplun.
"As a result of this confusion, civilians are more likely to fall victim to erroneous, unnecessary or arbitrary attacks, while soldiers, unable to properly identify their enemy, face an increased risk of being attacked by persons they cannot distinguish from civilians."
While families continue to stream south from the conflict in Swat, northern Pakistan, some are already attempting to return to attend to their crops
Photo: Tariq Saeed/IRIN
Families fleeing south from the conflict in Swat, northern Pakistan. Civilians often fall victim to erroneous, unnecessary or arbitrary attacks in conflict situations
Citing the example of a civilian truck driver delivering ammunition to the frontline, Kaplun told IRIN this action would almost certainly be regarded as taking a direct part in hostilities.
"What if the same driver transports ammunition from a factory to a port far away from the conflict zone?" she added. "In our view, while he is still supporting the war effort, this driver is not directly participating in the fighting and is therefore protected against attack."
Oxfam International notes that the Conventions have been violated in every modern conflict "from Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo to the jungles of Colombia".
Such conflicts have seen grave violations where innocent civilians were targeted and millions of vulnerable people deprived of life-saving assistance "because of three inter-linked trends: deliberate obstruction, violence against aid workers, and the sheer intensity of conflicts", according to Louis Belanger, Oxfam's spokesman in New York.
Some of those involved in conflict still do not understand the limits of war. In an ICRC opinion poll conducted in six countries, including DRC, Lebanon and Liberia, 75 percent of respondents said there should be limits to what combatants could do in the course of fighting.
Asked if they had ever heard of the Geneva Conventions, fewer than half knew such rules existed, according to the ICRC's director for international law, Philip Spoerri.
"The findings reveal broad support for the core ideas behind the Geneva Conventions, and IHL as a whole, by people who have actually lived in conflict- and violence-affected countries," he noted. "Yet the survey also shows that the perceived impact of the rules on the ground is far weaker than the support for them."
Related story: GLOBAL: Geneva Conventions and 21st-century combatants
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions